How We Celebrate the Sixth Hour

In fall 2012 two students asked me for assistance. These both young women used to pray large portions of the Office, following the official German Stundenbuch. Sometimes – at least once a week – they met in the crypt of the Innsbruck Jesuit Church (which is right beside our School of Catholic Theology) and recited the Sixth Hour together. Both had experience with chanting psalms in the traditional monastic manner, but since the Stundenbuch offers no melodies, they improvised the melodies somehow.

Their questions were: Where could they find established melodies for the psalms, and would it be possible to transfer their experience into a regularly celebrated and publicly announced Sixth Hour? We decided that a weekly celebration on Mondays would be most practicable for us. Services at noon are not very common here, so we hoped that the Sixth Hour as a unique feature of the Jesuit Church among the inner-city churches in Innsbruck could raise some interest.

Now my part began: Would the Jesuit in charge be willing to include the Sixth Hour in the public worship schedule and keep the church free from other activities for our weekly fixed date? Yes, he would. (It helps when an assistant professor of Liturgical Studies asks.)

How strictly should and could we follow the official order of the Sixth Hour? I tended to be sceptical: The structure and meaning of the Office is not evident to people who are not familiar with it. But I respected the students’ wish to follow the official order instead of creating some new type of noon prayer. Eventually we agreed to this guideline: As Roman as possible, as simple as necessary. We could not provide enough copies of the Stundenbuch, nor could we find a practicable way to follow all rules and options for readings, antiphons, versicles, concluding prayers etc. for all times of the year, all feast days, saints’ days etc., if we really wanted to sing the Office with established melodies from trustworthy sources. We could not sing from the Stundenbuch (no melodies at all) nor could we provide specific leaflets for every week and every occasion for the forthcoming months.

Since all three of us were fans of the Benediktinisches Antiphonale which is used in German Benedictine monasteries, we decided to choose antiphons, melodies, and German psalm translations from there, at the same time following the Roman Four-Week-Psalter.

Under those premises the rest was quite easy:

  • We always start with the same version of the versicle O Lord, come to my assistance.
  • The following hymn is always the ancient Te decet laus. We found two German versions and provided one of them for weeks 1 and 3, the other one for weeks 2 and 4 in the four-week cycle.
  • To make it easier for beginners, we only use one antiphon for all three psalms in week 1, another antiphon for week 2 etc. (Meanwhile we have established two antiphons for each week at choice.) Between Easter and Pentecost, the antiphon is a triple Halleluja.
  • The reading is independent from Saints’ days: We have one reading for Advent, one for Lent, one for Eastertide, and three others at choice for all times of the year. If anyone wants to use the reading from the Stundenbuch for a certain saint’s day, she or he is free to do so, but it is not necessary and not part of the leaflet.
  • The versicle is always the same. (The Word of the Lord stands forever.)
  • The concluding prayer follows the same guidelines as the reading.

Here you can see page 3 from our leaflet for week 4 with the first psalm. Each leaftlet has exactly eight pages.

We added two additional leaflets beyond the four-week cycle. One leaflet is for feast days of any kind with psalms 123, 124, and 125. It has a collection of readings and concluding prayers for different occasions. Another leaflet is for commemoration of the dead. We use it whenever All Souls’ Day is on a Monday or when a Jesuit lies in repose in the church.

Here is the page with the readings for feast days:

There is one presider, one chanter, and one lector. If necessary, two or all three of these offices are occupied by one person. We sing a cappella, only the reading and the concluding prayer are read without melodies. Currently we are a group of five – two Jesuits, a female and a male student, and me – who arrange a schedule for the presiders and chanters. The lector is appointed at short notice. Since January 2013 the Sixth Hour has been celebrated on almost every Monday. It takes around 12–15 minutes.

During the summer holidays we sometimes are only two or three people present at the Sixth Hour, but in times of prosperity during the semester we are around 10–15. We meet in the crypt of the church, light the two candles beside the altar, begin with silence for about two minutes, then stand up and remain standing till the end (except for the reading and 90 seconds of silence afterwards when we sit down). This liturgy is not a huge event, but for those who join it is a time of intimate encounter with one’s own voice and breath with others in a liturgical assembly, and particularly with the Word of the Scripture.

After the pandemic lockdown in Austria in spring and with a forthcoming winter semester of distance learning at our university, we will see how the Sixth Hour will develop in coming months. In May we had an interesting discussion in our group: Public services were permitted again after the lockdown, but as a first step the government and the bishops’ conference urged that there should be no group singing for hygienic reasons. I proposed that for the time being we should not sing the psalms alternately as usual; instead they should be recited by a lector like a regular reading. The others were opposed: They regarded the singing of the psalms as the centerpiece of the liturgical experience. Eventually we decided to wait for further notice by the government and the bishops and refrain from a non-chanted Office. In July the pandemic situation changed and we returned to our usual weekly celebration where almost everything is sung.

2 comments

  1. Ausgezeichnet! Wonderful use of some of the excellent LotH materials available in German-speaking countries thanks to Herder publishing and excellent work by the Benedictine communities to realize the Thesaurus guidelines in books that are enduring and publicly available.

  2. I’m not familiar with the German books, so some of my observations may not be relevant.

    “We could not provide enough copies of the Stundenbuch, nor could we find a practicable way to follow all rules and options for readings, antiphons, versicles, concluding prayers etc. for all times of the year, all feast days, saints’ days etc., if we really wanted to sing the Office with established melodies from trustworthy sources.“

    I admit I was slightly confused by this since the Daytime Hours are usually ferial and only affected by the highest saints’ days (Solemnities/Feasts). I would have assumed that those add a pleasant break from the monotony and a way of highlighting extremely significant days — but perhaps that need is less felt since this takes place weekly? Especially in the seasons, the non-psalmody parts are usually on a weekly cycle anyway.

    I am not convinced that everyone must be able to read/sing everything that is sung/said (though I realize that accents, echoes, etc. can interfere with hearing and comprehension). In situations where there are limited resources, I favour the following approach:

    Provide a book/leaflet for people with ONLY the psalms and (limited) hymns to be used in simple singable tones. If really desired, The psalms could have ‘default’ antiphons for each season with notation indicating that special days will have their own antiphon.

    Antiphons do not have to be sung by a whole assembly. They can be sung by a single cantor – and as long as s/he sings clearly, there is little difficulty. Similarly readings and prayers – as long as they are clearly proclaimed – do not need to be available to all, just to the lector/presider. This allows variation in permitting more texts, more elaborate melodies, etc. to be used when desired, without sacrificing the basic experience.

    All this, assuming of course, that one wants to follow the modern Roman Office for one reason or the other. The situation is different, of course, if the Roman Office is only providing inspiration for

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